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Empowering Employees

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As a collision shop owner, Kim Parson has a single motivator.

“You can’t do anything better than help people,” Parson says.

Of course, Parson is, at least partially, referring to customers. She wouldn’t have been able to grow her company, Automotive Collision Technologies (ACT) Inc., with six locations in Maryland, into a $12.5-million-a-year operation without helping her customers.

But Parson is also talking about her employees, a group of 72 people across six locations that she refers to as the “ACT family.”

“Because we’re family, it means we’re important, and we’re tapped into people’s needs,” Parson says.

Through an extensive benefits package, awards ceremonies that honor employees for achievements, company parties and picnics, as well as a leadership club and profit-sharing program that’s in the works, Parson continually seeks to reward her team, which has resulted in long-term employees who are invested in the company, contributing to its success.

Rapid Growth

Parson worked for 15 years as a sales engineer in telecommunications for IBM. When she transitioned from the corporate pool to the collision business, she brought with her two skill sets, which she says the industry was lacking at the time: an adherence to processes and an understanding of people.

“It needs to be where everybody feels they have the opportunity to make a difference.”
–Kim Parson, owner, Automotive Collision Technologies Inc.

For example, in respect to processes, Parson focused on developing procedures to build accurate estimates, viewing the final estimate as a legally binding contract between the business and customer rather than a fluid document subject to change. Approaching the final estimate as an unchanging contract helped her build trust with her customers, a vital component that her competitors lacked.

And when it came to people, Parson understood what a shop’s overall goal should be when it comes to customer service.

“Collision is an emotional industry,” she says. “So it’s the hardest challenge to flip people and take them from something that is so unhappy and turn that to happiness.”

With her aptitude for processes and people, she opened her first shop in Randallstown, Md., in 1994. As business steadily increased, she upgraded to a 5,000-square-foot facility in Randallstown in 1997.

“I started with the premise that I didn’t want to get rich quick,” Parson says. “What I wanted to do is build something that would last.”

THE ACT FAMILY: From left, Automotive Collision Technologies owner Kim Parson, finance assistant Amanda Wilson, facility manager Dawn Hamby and finance manager Ann Marie Frazier. Parson refers to her employees as family. Photos by Timothy Acuna

The slow and steady approach worked. By 2002, the shop was bursting with repairs, and pulling in more than $1 million a year in sales. Parson owned the building and all of the equipment. She thought it was the perfect opportunity for her to open another shop. And for her second facility, she went big, opening up a 25,000-square-foot shop in Westminster, Md.

“It was risky to go ahead and lease-to-buy that 25,000-square-foot [building] up in Westminster. … That was certainly the biggest opportunity for failure,” Parson says.

Although things were touch and go in the beginning, the shop eventually hit its stride, generating $1.8 million in revenue in 2004. And from there, growth became exponential.

In 2004, she opened a shop in Glen Burnie, Md. Then in 2007 she went back to Randallstown and moved from her existing shop into a 25,000-square-foot vacant dealership building. She opened another shop in Hunt Valley, Md., in 2009. In 2012, she opened her fifth location in Annapolis, and she opened her latest shop in early 2013 in Catonsville, Md.

She saw each new location as an opportunity to provide good jobs and service to a new community.

Building Benefits

When Parson entered the industry 18 years ago, employee benefits were unheard of. Coming from IBM, where benefits were a given, she sought to change this.

“They left out consideration for employees, because all of the other industries you see out there, you have to take care of employees,” Parson says. “So I decided I just wanted to fix it.”

Parson first started offering benefits to her employees in ’95 with a modest health insurance plan. She asked the insurance company that insured the shop to assist her in finding a plan that would work best for the business, a move she recommends to other shop owners.

“Start with a trusted insurance partner and expand from there,” Parson says. “If they are insuring you and your business, they already have a vested interest to work for you with their business partners.”

With four employees in ’95, Parson estimates she contributed around $1,000 per year to that initial health plan. Early on, she had a goal to add a new benefit or improve an existing benefit every year, a goal she has nearly achieved.

Today, the company offers all employees health, dental, life and disability insurance. The overall contribution the company makes to all employee benefits is around $210,000 a year.

Parson says that all of the plans are top-notch, especially their health insurance policy, which currently has no deductible on prescriptions and primary care.

Offering an extensive range of benefits has helped Parson secure her employees’ loyalty to the business. She says she has had many employees look elsewhere, only to return to the company, because they found that no one else in the area provides the benefits Parson does. A fourth of Parson’s 72 employees have been with the company for more than 10 years.

Patrick Coyne, the shop’s estimating coordinator, exemplifies the commitment Parson’s employees have to the business.

“I hope to retire from this company,” Coyne says. “I love working for the company and I love working for Kim.”

Awarding Success

On top of benefits that provide financial support, Parson seeks to regularly recognize employees for their accomplishments.

About 10 years ago, she started honoring employees’ successes at official awards ceremonies during company parties. Parson hosts a “Spring Fling” at a local state park and puts on a Christmas party at an area mansion every year.

She gets input from her managers for the awards, which recognize personal and team achievements, such as most valuable player, most improved, and highest performing body shop (measured based on efficiency, not revenue). Prizes can range from simple trophies to tickets to sporting events; Parson has even given away a trip to Florida.

Awards may seem trivial, but Parson says knowing that the company recognizes and appreciates employees’ hard work makes them invested in the shop. According to Parson, it has also motivated her employees to come up with innovative ideas to improve the business.

For example, Coyne developed, on his own, a new system to calculate financial data. Using numbers from the previous year, he set up a spreadsheet that automatically calculates the company’s growth from month to month and year to year. It also compares actual sales data to the sales projections the managers had forecasted for that month, showing the accuracy of their projections.

“In making this uniform across the whole company, now we’re getting consistent numbers for each shop that we can compare apples to apples,” Coyne says.

Parson says Coyne’s system has drastically reduced the amount of time it takes to calculate the company’s financials.

“[It] now takes managers five minutes to complete, instead of doing the research that could take them half a day,” Parson says. 

“If you’re rewarding [employees], the ideas should keep coming,” she adds.

Looking Ahead

Parson’s next big plan: a leadership club and profit-sharing program.

The leadership club will meet once a month to discuss ideas to improve the business. Although managers are welcome, the club is intended for non-managerial employees, giving them a place to voice their opinions on how to drive the company’s success, something they don’t get to do on a regular basis.

“It needs to be where everybody feels they have the opportunity to make a difference,” says Parson, who is also in the preliminary planning stages for a profit-sharing program that should further employees’ investment in the business.

She says that these types of initiatives allow everyone in the company to continue to work and drive growth as a cohesive unit.

“This is the only reason that ACT remains a family,” she says. “It’s the acknowledgement and commitment of forward progress.”

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